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A proposal: Let people say “dick” on TV

Recently, MSNBC suspended political contributor Mark Halperin for saying on live TV that President Obama had been “a dick.” Halperin apologized several times and said it was appropriate that he had been suspended. Lost in this kerfuffle is a conversation about the word itself, and our evolving language. “Dick,” as Halperin used it, isn’t the profanity it once was. Why can’t people say it on TV?

In case you missed it, here’s the clip of Halperin cussing during “Morning Joe” Thursday, and his subsequent apology to the president and the viewers. (Video via Politico.)

Halperin will come out of this fine, the president probably isn’t crying over hurt feelings, and the debate about the federal budget will continue. My concern is language.

Here’s why I think what Halperin said wasn’t as bad as some people thought it was. Today the word “dick” basically has 4 common meanings.

1. A nickname for Richard (OK for family TV).
2. Old-fashioned shorthand for detective (OK for family TV).
3. A profane word for penis (definitely forbidden on family TV).
4. And there’s a fourth sense, which is still deemed too rude for TV, but shouldn’t be. It’s a strong insult word, as in, “That was a dick move.” Here’s how I would define it:

A dick is someone in a position of strength who acts unnecessarily mean out of spite.

I don’t know another word for this. “Jerk,” “bastard,” and “asshole” are close in meaning, but less specific. “Bully” suggests someone acts mean because they take pleasure from it, not because they are spiteful. “Douchebag” implies a naïve self-centeredness, which is not always the same as “dick” behavior. Sometimes you have to call somebody a dick, and there’s no better way to say it.

“He was kind of a dick” is a rude thing to say, but it’s hardly a phrase we reserve for times when we need to drop a bomb. It’s mildly salty language on the level of “That sucks” and “Kick some ass.”

Halperin wanted to convey the idea that it was unnecessarily mean for the president to hold a press conference beating up on the Republicans in the middle of a budget negotiation. In politics, that’s a dick move. Saying so is harsh, and it walks a fine line between criticizing a person’s character versus his actions, but I think it’s in-bounds.

Halperin took a risk with language, deployed exactly the right word, and got punished for it. Somebody put Mark Halperin back on TV, fast.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Language, Politics, Television


  1. gary says:

    Halperin has no future in media. He needs to go somewhere such that we do not hear from him again.

  2. Dee says:

    Halperin is someone in a media position of strength who acted unnecessarily mean out of spite–therefore he is a d**k.

    I have not seen an instance of the president displaying a similar type of meaness.

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